AT&T’s $102 billion acquisition of Time Warner in 2019 will go down in M&A history as an exceptionally ill-advised transaction, resulting in the loss of tens of billions of dollars of shareholder value. It should also go down in history as an exceptional ill-chosen target of antitrust intervention. The U.S. Department of Justice, with support from many academic and policy commentators, asserted with confidence that the vertical combination of these content and distribution powerhouses would result in an entity that could exercise market power to the detriment of competitors and consumers.
The chorus of condemnation continued with vigor even after the DOJ’s loss in court and AT&T’s consummation of the transaction. With AT&T’s May 17 announcement that it will unwind the two-year-old acquisition and therefore abandon its strategy to integrate content and distribution, it is clear these predictions of impending market dominance were unfounded.
This widely shared overstatement of antitrust risk derives from a simple but fundamental error: regulators and commentators were looking at the wrong market.
The DOJ’s Antitrust Case against the Transaction
The business case for the AT&T/Time Warner transaction was straightforward: it promised to generate synergies by combining a leading provider of wireless, broadband, and satellite television services with a leading supplier of video content. The DOJ’s antitrust case against the transaction was similarly straightforward: the combined entity would have the ability to foreclose “must have” content from other “pay TV” (cable and satellite television) distributors, resulting in adverse competitive effects.
This foreclosure strategy was expected to take two principal forms. First, AT&T could temporarily withhold (or threaten to withhold) content from rival distributors absent payment of a higher carriage fee, which would then translate into higher fees for subscribers. Second, AT&T could permanently withhold content from rival distributors, who would then lose subscribers to AT&T’s DirectTV satellite television service, further enhancing AT&T’s market power.
Many commentators, both in the trade press and significant portions of the scholarly community, characterized the transaction as posing a high-risk threat to competitive conditions in the pay TV market. These assertions reflected the view that the new entity would exercise a bottleneck position over video-content distribution in the pay TV market and would exercise that power to impose one-sided terms to the detriment of content distributors and consumers.
Notwithstanding this bevy of endorsements, the DOJ’s case was rejected by the district court and the decision was upheld by the D.C. appellate court. The district judge concluded that the DOJ had failed to show that the combined entity would exercise any credible threat to withhold “must have” content from distributors. A key reason: the lost carriage fees AT&T would incur if it did withhold content were so high, and the migration of subscribers from rival pay TV services so speculative, that it would represent an obviously irrational business strategy. In short: no sophisticated business party would ever take AT&T’s foreclosure threat seriously, in which case the DOJ’s predictions of market power were insufficiently compelling to justify the use of government power to block the transaction.
The Fundamental Flaws in the DOJ’s Antitrust Case
The logical and factual infirmities of the DOJ’s foreclosure hypothesis have been extensively and ably covered elsewhere and I will not repeat that analysis. Following up on my previous TOTM commentary on the transaction, I would like to emphasize the point that the DOJ’s case against the transaction was flawed from the outset for two more fundamental reasons.
False Assumption #1
The assumption that the combined entity could withhold so-called “must have” content to cause significant and lasting competitive injury to rival distributors flies in the face of market realities. Content is an abundant, renewable, and mobile resource. There are few entry barriers to the content industry: a commercially promising idea will likely attract capital, which will in turn secure the necessary equipment and personnel for production purposes. Any rival distributor can access a rich menu of valuable content from a plethora of sources, both domestically and worldwide, each of which can provide new content, as required. Even if the combined entity held a license to distribute purportedly “must have” content, that content would be up for sale (more precisely, re-licensing) to the highest bidder as soon as the applicable contract term expired. This is not mere theorizing: it is a widely recognized feature of the entertainment industry.
False Assumption #2
Even assuming the combined entity could wield a portfolio of “must have” content to secure a dominant position in the pay TV market and raise content acquisition costs for rival pay TV services, it still would lack any meaningful pricing power in the relevant consumer market. The reason: significant portions of the viewing population do not want any pay TV or only want dramatically “slimmed-down” packages. Instead, viewers increasingly consume content primarily through video-streaming services—a market in which platforms such as Amazon and Netflix already enjoyed leading positions at the time of the transaction. Hence, even accepting the DOJ’s theory that the combined entity could somehow monopolize the pay TV market consisting of cable and satellite television services, the theory still fails to show any reasonable expectation of anticompetitive effects in the broader and economically relevant market comprising pay TV and streaming services. Any attempt to exercise pricing power in the pay TV market would be economically self-defeating, since it would likely prompt a significant portion of consumers to switch to (or start to only use) streaming services.
The Antitrust Case for the Transaction
When properly situated within the market that was actually being targeted in the AT&T/Time Warner acquisition, the combined entity posed little credible threat of exercising pricing power. To the contrary, the combined entity was best understood as an entrant that sought to challenge the two pioneer entities—Amazon and Netflix—in the “over the top” content market.
Each of these incumbent platforms individually had (and have) multi-billion-dollar content production budgets that rival or exceed the budgets of major Hollywood studios and enjoy worldwide subscriber bases numbering in the hundreds of millions. If that’s not enough, AT&T was not the only entity that observed the displacement of pay TV by streaming services, as illustrated by the roughly concurrent entry of Disney’s Disney+ service, Apple’s Apple TV+ service, Comcast NBCUniversal’s Peacock service, and others. Both the existing and new competitors are formidable entities operating in a market with formidable capital requirements. In 2019, Netflix, Amazon, and Apple TV expended approximately $15 billion, $6 billion, and again, $6 billion, respectively, on content; by contrast, HBO Max, AT&T’s streaming service, expended approximately $3.5 billion.
In short, the combined entity faced stiff competition from existing and reasonably anticipated competitors, requiring several billions of dollars on “content spend” to even stay in the running. Far from being able to exercise pricing power in an imaginary market defined by DOJ litigators for strategic purposes, the AT&T/Time Warner entity faced the challenge of merely surviving in a real-world market populated by several exceptionally well-financed competitors. At best, the combined entity “threatened” to deliver incremental competitive benefits by adding a robust new platform to the video-streaming market; at worst, it would fail in this objective and cause no incremental competitive harm. As it turns out, the latter appears to be the case.
The Enduring Virtues of Antitrust Prudence
AT&T’s M&A fiasco has important lessons for broader antitrust debates about the evidentiary standards that should be applied by courts and agencies when assessing alleged antitrust violations, in general, and vertical restraints, in particular.
Among some scholars, regulators, and legislators, it has become increasingly received wisdom that prevailing evidentiary standards, as reflected in federal case law and agency guidelines, are excessively demanding, and have purportedly induced chronic underenforcement. It has been widely asserted that the courts’ and regulators’ focus on avoiding “false positives” and the associated costs of disrupting innocuous or beneficial business practices has resulted in an overly cautious enforcement posture, especially with respect to mergers and vertical restraints.
In fact, these views were expressed by some commentators in endorsing the antitrust case against the AT&T/Time-Warner transaction. Some legislators have gone further and argued for substantial amendments to the antitrust law to provide enforcers and courts with greater latitude to block or re-engineer combinations that would not pose sufficiently demonstrated competitive risks under current statutory or case law.
The swift downfall of the AT&T/Time-Warner transaction casts great doubt on this critique and accompanying policy proposals. It was precisely the district court’s rigorous application of those “overly” demanding evidentiary standards that avoided what would have been a clear false-positive error. The failure of the “blockbuster” combination to achieve not only market dominance, but even reasonably successful entry, validates the wisdom of retaining those standards.
The fundamental mismatch between the widely supported antitrust case against the transaction and the widely overlooked business realities of the economically relevant consumer market illustrates the ease with which largely theoretical and decontextualized economic models of competitive harm can lead to enforcement actions that lack any reasonable basis in fact.
[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the antitrust lawsuits against Google. The entire series of posts is available here.]
Judges sometimes claim that they do not pick winners when they decide antitrust cases. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Competitive conduct by its nature harms competitors, and so if antitrust were merely to prohibit harm to competitors, antitrust would then destroy what it is meant to promote.
What antitrust prohibits, therefore, is not harm to competitors but rather harm to competitors that fails to improve products. Only in this way is antitrust able to distinguish between the good firm that harms competitors by making superior products that consumers love and that competitors cannot match and the bad firm that harms competitors by degrading their products without offering consumers anything better than what came before.
That means, however, that antitrust must pick winners: antitrust must decide what is an improvement and what not. And a more popular search engine is a clear winner.
But one should not take its winningness for granted. For once upon a time there was another winner that the courts always picked, blocking antitrust case after antitrust case. Until one day the courts stopped picking it.
That was the economy of scale.
The Structure of the Google Case
Like all antitrust cases that challenge the exercise of power, the government’s case against Google alleges denial of an input to competitors in some market. Here the input is default search status in smartphones, the competitors are rival search providers, and the market is search advertising. The basic structure of the case is depicted in the figure below.
Although brought as a monopolization case under Section 2 of the Sherman Act, this is at heart an exclusive dealing case of the sort normally brought under Section 1 of the Sherman Act: the government’s core argument is that Google uses contracts with smartphone makers, pursuant to which the smartphone makers promise to make Google, and not competitors, the search default, to harm competing search advertising providers and by extension competition in the search advertising market.
The government must show anticompetitive conduct, monopoly power, and consumer harm in order to prevail.
Let us assume that there is monopoly power. The company has more than 70% of the search advertising market, which is in the zone normally required to prove that element of a monopolization claim.
The problem of anticompetitive conduct is only slightly more difficult.
Anticompetitive conduct is only ever one thing in antitrust: denial of an essential input to a competitor. There is no other way to harm rivals.
(To be sure, antitrust prohibits harm to competition, not competitors, but that means only that harm to competitors necessary but insufficient for liability. The consumer harm requirement decides whether the requisite harm to competitors is also harm to competition.)
It is not entirely clear just how important default search status really is to running a successful search engine, but let us assume that it is essential, as the government suggests.
Then the question whether Google’s contracts are anticompetitive turns on how much of the default search input Google’s contracts foreclose to rival search engines. If a lot, then the rivals are badly harmed. If a little, then there may be no harm at all.
The answer here is that there is a lot of foreclosure, at least if the government’s complaint is to be believed. Through its contracts with Apple and makers of Android phones, Google has foreclosed default search status to rivals on virtually every single smartphone.
That leaves consumer harm. And here is where things get iffy.
Usage as a Product Improvement: A Very Convenient Argument
The inquiry into consumer harm evokes measurements of the difference between demand curves and price lines, or extrapolations of compensating and equivalent variation using indifference curves painstakingly pieced together based on the assumptions of revealed preference.
But while the parties may pay experts plenty to spin such yarns, and judges may pretend to listen to them, in the end, for the judges, it always comes down to one question only: did exclusive dealing improve the product?
If it did, then the judge assumes that the contracts made consumers better off and the defendant wins. And if it did not, then off with their heads.
So, does foreclosing all this default search space to competitors make Google search advertising more valuable to advertisers?
Those who leap to Google’s defense say yes, for default search status increases the number of people who use Google’s search engine. And the more people use Google’s search engine, the more Google learns about how best to answer search queries and which advertisements will most interest which searchers. And that ensures that even more people will use Google’s search engine, and that Google will do an even better job of targeting ads on its search engine.
And that in turn makes Google’s search advertising even better: able to reach more people and to target ads more effectively to them.
None of that would happen if defaults were set to other engines and users spurned Google, and so foreclosing default search space to rivals undoubtedly improves Google’s product.
This is a nice argument. Indeed, it is almost too nice, for it seems to suggest that almost anything Google might do to steer users away from competitors and to itself deserves antitrust immunity. Suppose Google were to brandish arms to induce you to run your next search on Google. That would be a crime, but, on this account, not an antitrust crime. For getting you to use Google does make Google better.
The argument that locking up users improves the product is of potential use not just to Google but to any of the many tech companies that run on advertising—Facebook being a notable example—so it potentially immunizes an entire business model from antitrust scrutiny.
It turns out that has happened before.
Economies of Scale as a Product Improvement: Once a Convenient Argument
Once upon a time, antitrust exempted another kind of business for which products improve the more people used them. The business was industrial production, and it differs from online advertising only in the irrelevant characteristic that the improvement that comes with expanding use is not in the quality of the product but in the cost per unit of producing it.
The hallmark of the industrial enterprise is high fixed costs and low marginal costs. The textile mill differs from pre-industrial piecework weaving in that once a $10 million investment in machinery has been made, the mill can churn out yard after yard of cloth for pennies. The pieceworker, by contrast, makes a relatively small up-front investment—the cost of raising up the hovel in which she labors and making her few tools—but spends the same large amount of time to produce each new yard of cloth.
Large fixed costs and low marginal costs lie at the heart of the bounty of the modern age: the more you produce, the lower the unit cost, and so the lower the price at which you can sell your product. This is a recipe for plenty.
But it also means that, so long as consumer demand in a given market is lower than the capacity of any particular plant, driving buyers to a particular seller and away from competitors always improves the product, in the sense that it enables the firm to increase volume and reduce unit cost, and therefore to sell the product at a lower price.
If the promise of the modern age is goods at low prices, then the implication is that antitrust should never punish firms for driving rivals from the market and taking over their customers. Indeed, efficiency requires that only one firm should ever produce in any given market, at least in any market for which a single plant is capable of serving all customers.
For antitrust in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, beguiled by this advantage to size, exclusive dealing, refusals to deal, even the knife in a competitor’s back: whether these ran afoul of other areas of law or not, it was all for the better because it allowed industrial enterprises to achieve economies of scale.
It is no accident that, a few notable triumphs aside, antitrust did not come into its own until the mid-1930s, 40 years after its inception, on the heels of an intellectual revolution that explained, for the first time, why it might actually be better for consumers to have more than one seller in a market.
These theories suggested that consumers might care as much about product quality as they do about product cost, and indeed would be willing to abandon a low-cost product for a higher-quality, albeit more expensive, one.
From this perspective, the world of economies of scale and monopoly production was the drab world of Soviet state-owned enterprises churning out one type of shoe, one brand of cleaning detergent, and so on.
The world of capitalism and technological advance, by contrast, was one in which numerous firms produced batches of differentiated products in amounts sometimes too small fully to realize all scale economies, but for which consumers were nevertheless willing to pay because the products better fit their preferences.
What is more, the striving of monopolistically competitive firms to lure away each other’s customers with products that better fit their tastes led to disruptive innovation— “creative destruction” was Schumpeter’s famous term for it—that brought about not just different flavors of the same basic concept but entirely new concepts. The competition to create a better flip phone, for example, would lead inevitably to a whole new paradigm, the smartphone.
This reasoning combined with work in the 1940s and 1950s on economic growth that quantified for the first time the key role played by technological change in the vigor of capitalist economies—the famous Solow residual—to suggest that product improvements, and not the cost reductions that come from capital accumulation and their associated economies of scale, create the lion’s share of consumer welfare. Innovation, not scale, was king.
Antitrust responded by, for the first time in its history, deciding between kinds of product improvements, rather than just in favor of improvements, casting economies of scale out of the category of improvements subject to antitrust immunity, while keeping quality improvements immune.
Casting economies of scale out of the protected product improvement category gave antitrust something to do for the first time. It meant that big firms had to plead more than just the cost advantages of being big in order to obtain license to push their rivals around. And government could now start reliably to win cases, rather than just the odd cause célèbre.
It is this intellectual watershed, and not Thurman Arnold’s tenacity, that was responsible for antitrust’s emergence as a force after World War Two.
Usage-Based Improvements Are Not Like Economies of Scale
The improvements in advertising that come from user growth fall squarely on the quality side of the ledger—the value they create is not due to the ability to average production costs over more ad buyers—and so they count as the kind of product improvements that antitrust continues to immunize today.
But given the pervasiveness of this mode of product improvement in the tech economy—the fact that virtually any tech firm that sells advertising can claim to be improving a product by driving users to itself and away from competitors—it is worth asking whether we have not reached a new stage in economic development in which this form of product improvement ought, like economies of scale, to be denied protection.
Shouldn’t the courts demand more and better innovation of big tech firms than just the same old big-data-driven improvements they serve up year after year?
Galling as it may be to those who, like myself, would like to see more vigorous antitrust enforcement in general, the answer would seem to be “no.” For what induced the courts to abandon antitrust immunity for economies of scale in the mid-20th century was not the mere fact that immunizing economies of scale paralyzed antitrust. Smashing big firms is not, after all, an end in itself.
Instead, monopolistic competition, creative destruction and the Solow residual induced the change, because they suggested both that other kinds of product improvement are more important than economies of scale and, crucially, that protecting economies of scale impedes development of those other kinds of improvements.
A big firm that excludes competitors in order to reach scale economies not only excludes competitors who might have produced an identical or near-identical product, but also excludes competitors who might have produced a better-quality product, one that consumers would have preferred to purchase even at a higher price.
To cast usage-based improvements out of the product improvement fold, a case must be made that excluding competitors in order to pursue such improvements will block a different kind of product improvement that contributes even more to consumer welfare.
If we could say, for example, that suppressing search competitors suppresses more-innovative search engines that ad buyers would prefer, even if those innovative search engines were to lack the advantages that come from having a large user base, then a case might be made that user growth should no longer count as a product improvement immune from antitrust scrutiny.
And even then, the case against usage-based improvements would need to be general enough to justify an epochal change in policy, rather than be limited to a particular technology in a particular lawsuit. For the courts hate to balance in individual cases, statements to the contrary in their published opinions notwithstanding.
But there is nothing in the Google complaint, much less the literature, to suggest that usage-based improvements are problematic in this way. Indeed, much of the value created by the information revolution seems to inhere precisely in its ability to centralize usage.
Americans Keep Voting to Centralize the Internet
In the early days of the internet, theorists mistook its decentralized architecture for a feature, rather than a bug. But internet users have since shown, time and again, that they believe the opposite.
For example, the basic protocols governing email were engineered to allow every American to run his own personal email server.
But Americans hated the freedom that created—not least the spam—and opted instead to get their email from a single server: the one run by Google as Gmail.
The basic protocols governing web traffic were also designed to allow every American to run whatever other communications services he wished—chat, video chat, RSS, webpages—on his own private server in distributed fashion.
But Americans hated the freedom that created—not least having to build and rebuild friend networks across platforms–—and they voted instead overwhelmingly to get their social media from a single server: Facebook.
Indeed, the basic protocols governing internet traffic were designed to allow every business to store and share its own data from its own computers, in whatever form.
But American businesses hated that freedom—not least the cost of having to buy and service their own data storage machines—and instead 40% of the internet is now stored and served from Amazon Web Services.
Similarly, advertisers have the option of placing advertisements on the myriad independently-run websites that make up the internet—known in the business as the “open web”—by placing orders through competitive ad exchanges. But advertisers have instead voted mostly to place ads on the handful of highly centralized platforms known as “walled gardens,” including Facebook, Google’s YouTube and, of course, Google Search.
The communications revolution, they say, is all about “bringing people together.” It turns out that’s true.
And that Google should win on consumer harm.
Remember the Telephone
Indeed, the same mid-20th century antitrust that thought so little of economies of scale as a defense immunized usage-based improvements when it encountered them in that most important of internet precursors: the telephone.
The telephone, like most internet services, gets better as usage increases. The more people are on a particular telephone network, the more valuable the network becomes to subscribers.
Just as with today’s internet services, the advantage of a large user base drove centralization of telephone services a century ago into the hands of a single firm: AT&T. Aside from a few business executives who liked the look of a desk full of handsets, consumers wanted one phone line that they could use to call everyone.
Although the government came close to breaking AT&T up in the early 20th century, the government eventually backed off, because a phone system in which you must subscribe to the right carrier to reach a friend just doesn’t make sense.
Instead, Congress and state legislatures stepped in to take the edge off monopoly by regulating phone pricing. And when antitrust finally did break AT&T up in 1982, it did so in a distinctly regulatory fashion, requiring that AT&T’s parts connect each other’s phone calls, something that Congress reinforced in the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
The message was clear: the sort of usage-based improvements one finds in communications are real product improvements. And antitrust can only intervene if it has a way to preserve them.
The equivalent of interconnection in search, that the benefits of usage, in the form of data and attention, be shared among competing search providers, might be feasible. But it is hard to imagine the court in the Google case ordering interconnection without the benefit of decades of regulatory experience with the defendant’s operations that the district court in 1982 could draw upon in the AT&T case.
The solution for the tech giants today is the same as the solution for AT&T a century ago: to regulate rather than to antitrust.
Microsoft Not to the Contrary, Because Users Were in Common
Parallels to the government’s 1990s-era antitrust case against Microsoft are not to the contrary.
As Sam Weinstein has pointed out to me, Microsoft, like Google, was at heart an exclusive dealing case: Microsoft contracted with computer manufacturers to prevent Netscape Navigator, an early web browser, from serving as the default web browser on Windows PCs.
That prevented Netscape, the argument went, from growing to compete with Windows in the operating system market, much the way the Google’s Chrome browser has become a substitute for Windows on low-end notebook computers today.
The D.C. Circuit agreed that default status was an essential input for Netscape as it sought eventually to compete with Windows in the operating system market.
The court also accepted the argument that the exclusive dealing did not improve Microsoft’s operating system product.
This at first seems to contradict the notion that usage improves products, for, like search advertising, operating systems get better as their user bases increase. The more people use an operating system, the more application developers are willing to write for the system, and the better the system therefore becomes.
It seems to follow that keeping competitors off competing operating systems and on Windows made Windows better. If the court nevertheless held Microsoft liable, it must be because the court refused to extend antitrust immunity to usage-based improvements.
The trouble with this line of argument is that it ignores the peculiar thing about the Microsoft case: that while the government alleged that Netscape was a potential competitor of Windows, Netscape was also an application that ran on Windows.
That means that, unlike Google and rival search engines, Windows and Netscape shared users.
So, Microsoft’s exclusive dealing did not increase its user base and therefore could not have improved Windows, at least not by making Windows more appealing for applications developers. Driving Netscape from Windows did not enable developers to reach even one more user. Conversely, allowing Netscape to be the default browser on Windows would not have reduced the number of Windows users, because Netscape ran on Windows.
By contrast, a user who runs a search in Bing does not run the same search simultaneously in Google, and so Bing users are not Google users. Google’s exclusive dealing therefore increases its user base and improves Google’s product, whereas Microsoft’s exclusive dealing served only to reduce Netscape’s user base and degrade Netscape’s product.
Indeed, if letting Netscape be the default browser on Windows was a threat to Windows, it was not because it prevented Microsoft from improving its product, but because Netscape might eventually have become an operating system, and indeed a better operating system, than Windows, and consumers and developers, who could be on both at the same time if they wished, might have nevertheless chosen eventually to go with Netscape alone.
Though it does not help the government in the Google case, Microsoft still does offer a beacon of hope for those concerned about size, for Microsoft’s subsequent history reminds us that yesterday’s behemoth is often today’s also ran.
And the favorable settlement terms Microsoft ultimately used to escape real consequences for its conduct 20 years ago imply that, at least in high-tech markets, we don’t always need antitrust for that to be true.
In our first post, we discussed the weaknesses of an important theoretical underpinning of efforts to expand vertical merger enforcement (including, possibly, the proposed guidelines): the contract/merger equivalency assumption.
In this post we discuss the implications of that assumption and some of the errors it leads to — including some incorporated into the proposed guidelines.
There is no theoretical or empirical justification for more vertical enforcement
Tim Brennan makes a fantastic and regularly overlooked point in his post: If it’s true, as many claim (see, e.g., Steve Salop), that firms can generally realize vertical efficiencies by contracting instead of merging, then it’s also true that they can realize anticompetitive outcomes the same way. While efficiencies have to be merger-specific in order to be relevant to the analysis, so too do harms. But where the assumption is that the outcomes of integration can generally be achieved by the “less-restrictive” means of contracting, that would apply as well to any potential harms, thus negating the transaction-specificity required for enforcement. As Dennis Carlton notes:
There is a symmetry between an evaluation of the harms and benefits of vertical integration. Each must be merger-specific to matter in an evaluation of the merger’s effects…. If transaction costs are low, then vertical integration creates neither benefits nor harms, since everything can be achieved by contract. If transaction costs exist to prevent the achievement of a benefit but not a harm (or vice-versa), then that must be accounted for in a calculation of the overall effect of a vertical merger. (Dennis Carlton, Transaction Costs and Competition Policy)
Of course, this also means that those (like us) who believe that it is not so easy to accomplish by contract what may be accomplished by merger must also consider the possibility that a proposed merger may be anticompetitive because it overcomes an impediment to achieving anticompetitive goals via contract.
There’s one important caveat, though: The potential harms that could arise from a vertical merger are the same as those that would be cognizable under Section 2 of the Sherman Act. Indeed, for a vertical merger to cause harm, it must be expected to result in conduct that would otherwise be illegal under Section 2. This means there is always the possibility of a second bite at the apple when it comes to thwarting anticompetitive conduct.
The same cannot be said of procompetitive conduct that can arise only through merger if a merger is erroneously prohibited before it even happens.
Interestingly, Salop himself — the foremost advocate today for enhanced vertical merger enforcement — recognizes the issue raised by Brennan:
Exclusionary harms and certain efficiency benefits also might be achieved with vertical contracts and agreements without the need for a vertical merger…. It  might be argued that the absence of premerger exclusionary contracts implies that the merging firms lack the incentive to engage in conduct that would lead to harmful exclusionary effects. But anticompetitive vertical contracts may face the same types of impediments as procompetitive ones, and may also be deterred by potential Section 1 enforcement. Neither of these arguments thus justify a more or less intrusive vertical merger policy generally. Rather, they are factors that should be considered in analyzing individual mergers. (Salop & Culley, Potential Competitive Effects of Vertical Mergers)
In the same article, however, Salop also points to the reasons why it should be considered insufficient to leave enforcement to Sections 1 and 2, instead of addressing them at their incipiency under Clayton Section 7:
While relying solely on post-merger enforcement might have appealing simplicity, it obscures several key facts that favor immediate enforcement under Section 7.
The benefit of HSR review is to prevent the delays and remedial issues inherent in after-the-fact enforcement….
There may be severe problems in remedying the concern….
Section 1 and Section 2 legal standards are more permissive than Section 7 standards….
The agencies might well argue that anticompetitive post-merger conduct was caused by the merger agreement, so that it would be covered by Section 7….
All in all, failure to address these kinds of issues in the context of merger review could lead to significant consumer harm and underdeterrence.
The points are (mostly) well-taken. But they also essentially amount to a preference for more and tougher enforcement against vertical restraints than the judicial interpretations of Sections 1 & 2 currently countenance — a preference, in other words, for the use of Section 7 to bolster enforcement against vertical restraints of any sort (whether contractual or structural).
The problem with that, as others have pointed out in this symposium (see, e.g., Nuechterlein; Werden & Froeb; Wright, et al.), is that there’s simply no empirical basis for adopting a tougher stance against vertical restraints in the first place. Over and over again the empirical research shows that vertical restraints and vertical mergers are unlikely to cause anticompetitive harm:
In reviewing this literature, two features immediately stand out: First, there is a paucity of support for the proposition that vertical restraints/vertical integration are likely to harm consumers. . . . Second, a far greater number of studies found that the use of vertical restraints in the particular context studied improved welfare unambiguously. (Cooper, et al, Vertical Restrictions and Antitrust Policy: What About the Evidence?)
[W]e did not have a particular conclusion in mind when we began to collect the evidence, and we… are therefore somewhat surprised at what the weight of the evidence is telling us. It says that, under most circumstances, profit-maximizing, vertical-integration decisions are efficient, not just from the firms’ but also from the consumers’ points of view…. We therefore conclude that, faced with a vertical arrangement, the burden of evidence should be placed on competition authorities to demonstrate that that arrangement is harmful before the practice is attacked. (Francine Lafontaine & Margaret Slade, Vertical Integration and Firm Boundaries: The Evidence)
In sum, these papers from 2009-2018 continue to support the conclusions from Lafontaine & Slade (2007) and Cooper et al. (2005) that consumers mostly benefit from vertical integration. While vertical integration can certainly foreclose rivals in theory, there is only limited empirical evidence supporting that finding in real markets. (GAI Comment on Vertical Mergers)
To the extent that the proposed guidelines countenance heightened enforcement relative to the status quo, they fall prey to the same defect. And while it is unclear from the fairly terse guidelines whether this is animating them, the removal of language present in the 1984 Non-Horizontal Merger Guidelines acknowledging the relative lack of harm from vertical mergers (“[a]lthough non-horizontal mergers are less likely than horizontal mergers to create competitive problems…”) is concerning.
The shortcomings of orthodox economics and static formal analysis
There is also a further reason to think that vertical merger enforcement may be more likely to thwart procompetitive than anticompetitive arrangements relative to the status quo ante (i.e., where arrangements among vertical firms are by contract): Our lack of knowledge about the effects of market structure and firm organization on innovation and dynamic competition, and the relative hostility to nonstandard contracting, including vertical integration:
[T]he literature addressing how market structure affects innovation (and vice versa) in the end reveals an ambiguous relationship in which factors unrelated to competition play an important role. (Katz & Shelanski, Mergers and Innovation)
The fixation on the equivalency of the form of vertical integration (i.e., merger versus contract) is likely to lead enforcers to focus on static price and cost effects, and miss the dynamic organizational and informational effects that lead to unexpected, increased innovation across and within firms.
In the hands of Oliver Williamson, this means that understanding firms in the real world entails taking an organization theory approach, in contrast to the “orthodox” economic perspective:
The lens of contract approach to the study of economic organization is partly complementary but also partly rival to the orthodox [neoclassical economic] lens of choice. Specifically, whereas the latter focuses on simple market exchange, the lens of contract is predominantly concerned with the complex contracts. Among the major differences is that non‐standard and unfamiliar contractual practices and organizational structures that orthodoxy interprets as manifestations of monopoly are often perceived to serve economizing purposes under the lens of contract. A major reason for these and other differences is that orthodoxy is dismissive of organization theory whereas organization theory provides conceptual foundations for the lens of contract. (emphasis added)
We are more likely to miss it when mergers solve market inefficiencies, and more likely to see it when they impose static costs — even if the apparent costs actually represent a move from less efficient contractual arrangements to more efficient integration.
The competition that takes place in the real world and between various groups ultimately depends upon the institution of private contracts, many of which, including the firm itself, are nonstandard. Innovation includes the discovery of new organizational forms and the application of old forms to new contexts. Such contracts prevent or attenuate market failure, moving the market toward what economists would deem a more competitive result. Indeed, as Professor Coase pointed out, many markets deemed “perfectly competitive” are in fact the end result of complex contracts limiting rivalry between competitors. This contractual competition cannot produce perfect results — no human institution ever can. Nonetheless, the result is superior to that which would obtain in a (real) world without nonstandard contracting. These contracts do not depend upon the creation or enhancement of market power and thus do not produce the evils against which antitrust law is directed. (Alan Meese, Price Theory Competition & the Rule of Reason)
The pinched focus of the guidelines on narrow market definition misses the bigger picture of dynamic competition over time
The proposed guidelines (and the theories of harm undergirding them) focus upon indicia of market power that may not be accurate if assessed in more realistic markets or over more relevant timeframes, and, if applied too literally, may bias enforcement against mergers with dynamic-innovation benefits but static-competition costs.
Similarly, the proposed guidelines’ enumeration of potential efficiencies doesn’t really begin to cover the categories implicated by the organization of enterprise around dynamic considerations.
The proposed guidelines’ efficiencies section notes that:
Vertical mergers bring together assets used at different levels in the supply chain to make a final product. A single firm able to coordinate how these assets are used may be able to streamline production, inventory management, or distribution, or create innovative products in ways that would have been hard to achieve though arm’s length contracts. (emphasis added)
But it is not clear than any of these categories encompasses organizational decisions made to facilitate the coordination of production and commercialization when they are dependent upon intangible assets.
As Thomas Jorde and David Teece write:
For innovations to be commercialized, the economic system must somehow assemble all the relevant complementary assets and create a dynamically-efficient interactive system of learning and information exchange. The necessary complementary assets can conceivably be assembled by either administrative or market processes, as when the innovator simply licenses the technology to firms that already own or are willing to create the relevant assets. These organizational choices have received scant attention in the context of innovation. Indeed, the serial model relies on an implicit belief that arm’s-length contracts between unaffiliated firms in the vertical chain from research to customer will suffice to commercialize technology. In particular, there has been little consideration of how complex contractual arrangements among firms can assist commercialization — that is, translating R&D capability into profitable new products and processes….
When IP protection for a given set of valuable pieces of “know-how” is strong — easily defendable, unique patents, for example — firms can rely on property rights to efficiently contract with vertical buyers and sellers. But in cases where the valuable “know how” is less easily defended as IP — e.g. business process innovation, managerial experience, distributed knowledge, corporate culture, and the like — the ability to partially vertically integrate through contract becomes more difficult, if not impossible.
Perhaps employing these assets is part of what is meant in the draft guidelines by “streamline.” But the very mention of innovation only in the technological context of product innovation is at least some indication that organizational innovation is not clearly contemplated.
This is a significant lacuna. The impact of each organizational form on knowledge transfers creates a particularly strong division between integration and contract. As Enghin Atalay, Ali Hortaçsu & Chad Syverson point out:
That vertical integration is often about transfers of intangible inputs rather than physical ones may seem unusual at first glance. However, as observed by Arrow (1975) and Teece (1982), it is precisely in the transfer of nonphysical knowledge inputs that the market, with its associated contractual framework, is most likely to fail to be a viable substitute for the firm. Moreover, many theories of the firm, including the four “elemental” theories as identified by Gibbons (2005), do not explicitly invoke physical input transfers in their explanations for vertical integration. (Enghin Atalay, et al., Vertical Integration and Input Flows) (emphasis added)
There is a large economics and organization theory literature discussing how organizations are structured with respect to these sorts of intangible assets. And the upshot is that, while we start — not end, as some would have it — with the Coasian insight that firm boundaries are necessarily a function of production processes and not a hard limit, we quickly come to realize that it is emphatically not the case that integration-via-contract and integration-via-merger are always, or perhaps even often, viable substitutes.
The contract/merger equivalency assumption, coupled with a “least-restrictive alternative” logic that favors contract over merger, puts a thumb on the scale against vertical mergers. While the proposed guidelines as currently drafted do not necessarily portend the inflexible, formalistic application of this logic, they offer little to guide enforcers or courts away from the assumption in the important (and perhaps numerous) cases where it is unwarranted.
This post is authored byGeoffrey A. Manne (President & Founder, ICLE; Distinguished Fellow, Northwestern University Center on Law, Business, and Economics ); and Kristian Stout (Associate Director, ICLE).]
Although it is doubtless correct that the 1984 guidelines don’t reflect the latest economic knowledge, it is by no means clear that this has actually been a problem — or that a new set of guidelines wouldn’t create even greater problems. Indeed, as others have noted in this symposium, there is a great deal of ambiguity in the proposed guidelines that could lead either to uncertainty as to how the agencies will exercise their discretion, or, more troublingly, could lead courts to take seriously speculative theories of harm.
My sense is that there is no need to revise the DOJ/FTC Horizontal Merger Guidelines, with one exception…. The current guidelines lay out the general framework quite well and any change in language relative to that framework are likely to create more confusion rather than less. Based on my own experience, the business community has had a good sense of how the agencies conduct merger analysis…. If, however, the current administration intends to materially change the way merger analysis is conducted at the agencies, then perhaps greater revision makes more sense. But even then, perhaps the best approach is to try out some of the contemplated changes (i.e. in actual investigations) and publicize them in speeches and the like before memorializing them in a document that is likely to have some substantial permanence to it.
Wise words. Unless, of course, “the current [FTC] intends to materially change the way [vertical] merger analysis is conducted.” But the draft guidelines don’t really appear to portend a substantial change, and in several ways they pretty accurately reflect agency practice.
What we want to draw attention to, however, is an implicit underpinning of the draft guidelines that we believe the agencies should clearly disavow (or at least explain more clearly the complexity surrounding): the extent and implications of the presumed functional equivalence of vertical integration by contract and by merger — the contract/merger equivalency assumption.
Vertical mergers and their discontents
The contract/merger equivalency assumption has been gaining traction with antitrust scholars, but it is perhaps most clearly represented in some of Steve Salop’s work. Salop generally believes that vertical merger enforcement should be heightened. Among his criticisms of current enforcement is his contention that efficiencies that can be realized by merger can often also be achieved by contract. As he discussed during his keynote presentation at last year’s FTC hearing on vertical mergers:
And, finally, the key policy issue is the issue is not about whether or not there are efficiencies; the issue is whether the efficiencies are merger-specific. As I pointed out before, Coase stressed that you can get vertical integration by contract. Very often, you can achieve the vertical efficiencies if they occur, but with contracts rather than having to merge.
And later, in the discussion following his talk:
If there is vertical integration by contract… it meant you could get all the efficiencies from vertical integration with a contract. You did not actually need the vertical integration.
Salop thus argues that because the existence of a “contract solution” to firm problems can often generate the same sorts of efficiencies as when firms opt to merge, enforcers and courts should generally adopt a presumption against vertical mergers relative to contracting:
Coase’s door swings both ways: Efficiencies often can be achieved by vertical contracts, without the potential anticompetitive harms from merger.
In that vertical restraints are characterized as “just” vertical integration “by contract,” then claimed efficiencies in problematical mergers might be achieved with non-merger contracts that do not raise the same anticompetitive concerns. (emphasis in original)
(Salop isn’t alone in drawing such a conclusion, of course; Carl Shapiro, for example, has made a similar point (as have others)).
In our next post we explore the policy errors implicated by this contract/merger equivalency assumption. But here we want to consider whether it makes logical sense in the first place.
The logic of vertical integration is not commutative
It is true that, where contracts are observed, they are likely as (or more, actually) efficient than merger. But, by the same token, it is also true that where mergers are observed they are likely more efficient than contracts. Indeed, the entire reason for integration is efficiency relative to what could be done by contract — this is the essence of the so-called “make-or-buy” decision.
For example, a firm that decides to buy its own warehouse has determined that doing so is more efficient than renting warehouse space. Some of these efficiencies can be measured and quantified (e.g., carrying costs of ownership vs. the cost of rent), but many efficiencies cannot be easily measured or quantified (e.g., layout of the facility or site security). Under the contract/merger equivalency assumption, the benefits of owning a warehouse can be achieved “very often” by renting warehouse space. But the fact that many firms using warehouses own some space and rent some space indicates that the make-or-buy decision is often unique to each firm’s idiosyncratic situation. Moreover, the distinctions driving those differences will not always be readily apparent, and whether contracting or integrating is preferable in any given situation may not be inferred from the existence of one or the other elsewhere in the market — or even in the same firm!
There is no reason to presume in any given situation that the outcome from contracting would be the same as from merging, even where both are notionally feasible. The two are, quite simply, different bargaining environments, each with a different risk and cost allocation; accounting treatment; effect on employees, customers, and investors; tax consequence, etc. Even if the parties accomplished nominally “identical” outcomes, they would not, in fact, be identical.
Meanwhile, what if the reason for failure to contract, or the reason to prefer merger, has nothing to do with efficiency? What if there were no anticompetitive aim but there were a tax advantage? What if one of the parties just wanted a larger firm in order to satisfy the CEO’s ego? That these are not cognizable efficiencies under antitrust law is clear. But the adoption of a presumption of equivalence between contract and merger would — ironically — entail their incorporation into antitrust law just the same — by virtue of their effective prohibition under antitrust law.
In other words, if the assumption is that contract and merger are equally efficient unless proven otherwise, but the law adopts a suspicion (or, even worse, a presumption) that vertical mergers are anticompetitive which can be rebutted only with highly burdensome evidence of net efficiency gain, this effectively deputizes antitrust law to enforce a preconceived notion of “merger appropriateness” that does not necessarily turn on efficiencies. There may (or may not) be sensible policy reasons for adopting such a stance, but they aren’t antitrust reasons.
More fundamentally, however, while there are surely some situations in which contractual restraints might be able to achieve similar organizational and efficiency gains as a merger, the practical realities of achieving not just greater efficiency, but a whole host of non-efficiency-related, yet nonetheless valid, goals, are rarely equivalent between the two.
It may be that the parties don’t know what they don’t know to such an extent that a contract would be too costly because it would be too incomplete, for example. But incomplete contracts and ambiguous control and ownership rights aren’t (as much of) an issue on an ongoing basis after a merger.
As noted, there is no basis for assuming that the structure of a merger and a contract would be identical. In the same way, there is no basis for assuming that the knowledge transfer that would result from a merger would be the same as that which would result from a contract — and in ways that the parties could even specify or reliably calculate in advance. Knowing that the prospect for knowledge “synergies” would be higher with a merger than a contract might be sufficient to induce the merger outcome. But asked to provide evidence that the parties could not engage in the same conduct via contract, the parties would be unable to do so. The consequence, then, would be the loss of potential gains from closer integration.
At the same time, the cavalier assumption that parties would be able — legally — to enter into an analogous contract in lieu of a merger is problematic, given that it would likely be precisely the form of contract (foreclosing downstream or upstream access) that is alleged to create problems with the merger in the first place.
I want to reemphasize that there are also rules against vertical restraints in antitrust laws, and so to say that the firms could achieve the mergers outcome by using vertical restraints is kind of putting them in a circular motion where we are telling them you cannot merge because you could do it by contract, and then we say, but these contract terms are not acceptable.
Indeed, legal risk is one of the reasons why a merger might be preferable to a contract, and because the relevant markets here are oligopoly markets, the possibility of impermissible vertical restraints between large firms with significant market share is quite real.
More important, the assumptions underlying the contention that contracts and mergers are functionally equivalent legal devices fails to appreciate the importance of varied institutional environments. Consider that one reason some takeovers are hostile is because incumbent managers don’t want to merge, and often believe that they are running a company as well as it can be run — that a change of corporate control would not improve efficiency. The same presumptions may also underlie refusals to contract and, even more likely, may explain why, to the other firm, a contract would be ineffective.
But, while there is no way to contract without bilateral agreement, there is a corporate control mechanism to force a takeover. In this institutional environment a merger may be easier to realize than a contract (and that applies even to a consensual merger, of course, given the hostile outside option). In this case, again, the assumption that contract should be the relevant baseline and the preferred mechanism for coordination is misplaced — even if other firms in the industry are successfully accomplishing the same thing via contract, and even if a contract would be more “efficient” in the abstract.
Properly understood, the choice of whether to contract or merge derives from a host of complicated factors, many of which are difficult to observe and/or quantify. The contract/merger equivalency assumption — and the species of “least-restrictive alternative” reasoning that would demand onerous efficiency arguments to permit a merger when a contract was notionally possible — too readily glosses over these complications and unjustifiably embraces a relative hostility to vertical mergers at odds with both theory and evidence.
Rather, as has long been broadly recognized, there can be no legally relevant presumption drawn against a company when it chooses one method of vertical integration over another in the general case. The agencies should clarify in the draft guidelines that the mere possibility of integration via contract or the inability of merging parties to rigorously describe and quantify efficiencies does not condemn a proposed merger.
This post is authored by Lawrence J. White (Robert Kavesh Professor of Economics, New York University; former Chief Economist, DOJ Antitrust Division).]
The DOJ/FTC Draft Vertical Merger Guidelines establish a “safe harbor” of a 20% market share for each of the merging parties. But the issue of defining the relevant “market” to which the 20% would apply is not well addressed.
Although reference is made to the market definition paradigm that is offered by the DOJ’s and FTC’s Horizontal Merger Guidelines (“HMGs”), what is neglected is the following: Under the “unilateral effects” theory of competitive harm of the HMGs, the horizontal merger of two firms that sell differentiated products that are imperfect substitutes could lead to significant price increases if the second-choice product for a significant fraction of each of the merging firms’ customers is sold by the partner firm. Such unilateral-effects instances are revealed by examining detailed sales and substitution data with respect to the customers of only the two merging firms.
In such instances, the true “relevant market” is simply the products that are sold by the two firms, and the merger is effectively a “2-to-1” merger. Under these circumstances, any apparently broader market (perhaps based on physical or functional similarities of products) is misleading, and the “market” shares of the merging parties that are based on that broader market are under-representations of the potential for their post-merger exercise of market power.
With a vertical merger, the potential for similar unilateral effects* would have to be captured by examining the detailed sales and substitution patterns of each of the merging firms with all of their significant horizontal competitors. This will require a substantial, data-intensive effort. And, of course, if this effort is not undertaken and an erroneously broader market is designated, the 20% “market” share threshold will understate the potential for competitive harm from a proposed vertical merger.
* With a vertical merger, such “unilateral effects” could arise post-merger in two ways: (a) The downstream partner could maintain a higher price, since some of the lost profits from some of the lost sales could be recaptured by the upstream partner’s profits on the sales of components to the downstream rivals (which gain some of the lost sales); and (b) the upstream partner could maintain a higher price to the downstream rivals, since some of the latter firms’ customers (and the concomitant profits) would be captured by the downstream partner.
This post is authored byJan Rybnicek (Counsel at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer US LLP in Washington, D.C. and Senior Fellow and Adjunct Professor at the Global Antitrust Institute at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University).]
In an area where it may seem that agreement is rare, there is near universal agreement on the benefits of withdrawing the DOJ’s 1984 Non-Horizontal Merger Guidelines. The 1984 Guidelines do not reflect current agency thinking on vertical mergers and are not relied upon by businesses or practitioners to anticipate how the agencies may review a vertical transaction. The more difficult question is whether the agencies should now replace the 1984 Guidelines and, if so, what the modern guidelines should say.
There are several important reasons that counsel against issuing new vertical merger guidelines (VMGs). Most significantly, we likely are better off without new VMGs because they invariably will (1) send the wrong message to agency staff about the relative importance of vertical merger enforcement compared to other agency priorities, (2) create new sufficient conditions that tend to trigger wasteful investigations and erroneous enforcement actions, and (3) add very little, if anything, to our understanding of when the agencies will or will not pursue an in-depth investigation or enforcement action of a vertical merger.
Unfortunately, these problems are magnified rather than mitigated by the draft VMGs. But it is unlikely at this point that the agencies will hit the brakes and not issue new VMGs. The agencies therefore should make several key changes that would help prevent the final VMGs from causing more harm than good.
What is the Purpose of Agency Guidelines?
Before we can have a meaningful conversation about whether the draft VMGs are good or bad for the world, or how they can be improved to ensure they contribute positively to antitrust law, it is important to identify, and have a shared understanding about, the purpose of guidelines and their potential benefits.
In general, I am supportive of guidelines. In fact, I helped urge the FTC to issue its 2015 Policy Statement articulating the agency’s enforcement principles under its Section 5 Unfair Methods of Competition authority. As I have written before, guidelines can be useful if they accomplish two important goals: (1) provide insight and transparency to businesses and practitioners about the agencies’ analytical approach to an issue and (2) offer agency staff direction as to agency priorities while cabining the agencies’ broad discretion by tethering investigational or enforcement decisions to those guidelines. An additional benefit may be that the guidelines also could prove useful to courts interpreting or applying the antitrust laws.
Transparency is important for the obvious reason that it allows the business community and practitioners to know how the agencies will apply the antitrust laws and thereby allows them to evaluate if a specific merger or business arrangement is likely to receive scrutiny. But guidelines are not only consumed by the public. They also are used by agency staff. As a result, guidelines invariably influence how staff approaches a matter, including whether to open an investigation, how in-depth that investigation is, and whether to recommend an enforcement action. Lastly, for guidelines to be meaningful, they also must accurately reflect agency practice, which requires the agencies’ analysis to be tethered to an analytical framework.
As discussed below, there are many reasons to doubt that the draft VMGs can deliver on these goals.
Draft VMGs Will Lead to Bad Enforcement Policy While Providing Little Benefit
A chief concern with VMGs is that they will inadvertently usher in a new enforcement regime that treats horizontal and vertical mergers as co-equal enforcement priorities despite the mountain of evidence, not to mention simple logic, that mergers among competitors are a significantly greater threat to competition than are vertical mergers. The draft VMGs exacerbate rather than mitigate this risk by creating a false equivalence between vertical and horizontal merger enforcement and by establishing new minimum conditions that are likely to lead the agencies to pursue wasteful investigations of vertical transactions. And the draft VMGs do all this without meaningfully advancing our understanding of the conditions under which the agencies are likely to pursue investigations and enforcement against vertical mergers.
1. No Recognition of the Differences Between Horizontal and Vertical Mergers
One striking feature of the draft VMGs is that they fail to contextualize vertical mergers in the broader antitrust landscape. As a result, it is easy to walk away from the draft VMGs with the impression that vertical mergers are as likely to lead to anticompetitive harm as are horizontal mergers. That is a position not supported by the economic evidence or logic. It is of course true that vertical mergers can result in competitive harm; that is not a seriously contested point. But it is important to acknowledge and provide background for why that harm is significantly less likely than in horizontal cases. That difference should inform agency enforcement priorities. Potentially due to this the lack of framing, the draft VMGs tend to speak more about when the agencies may identify competitive harm rather than when they will not.
The draft VMGs would benefit greatly from a more comprehensive approach to understanding vertical merger transactions. The agencies should add language explaining that, whereas a consensus exists that eliminating a direct competitor always tends to increase the risk of unilateral effects (although often trivially), there is no such consensus that harm will result from the combination of complementary assets. In fact, the current evidence shows such vertical transactions tend to be procompetitive. Absent such language, the VMGs will over time misguidedly focus more agency resources into investigating vertical mergers where there is unlikely to be harm (with inevitably more enforcement errors) and less time on more important priorities, such as pursuing enforcement of anticompetitive horizontal transactions.
2. The 20% Safe Harbor Provides No Harbor and Will Become a Sufficient Condition
The draft VMGs attempt to provide businesses with guidance about the types of transactions the agencies will not investigate by articulating a market share safe harbor. But that safe harbor does not (1) appear to be grounded in any evidence, (2) is surprisingly low in comparison to the EU vertical merger guidelines, and (3) is likely to become a sufficient condition to trigger an in-depth investigation or enforcement.
The draft VMGs state:
The Agencies are unlikely to challenge a vertical merger where the parties to the merger have a share in the relevant market of less than 20%, and the related product is used in less than 20% of the relevant market.
But in the very next sentence the draft VMGs render the safe harbor virtually meaningless, stating:
In some circumstance, mergers with shares below the threshold can give rise to competitive concerns.
This caveat comes despite the fact that the 20% threshold is low compared to other jurisdictions. Indeed, the EU’s guidelines create a 30% safe harbor. Nor is it clear what the basis is for the 20% threshold, either in economics or law. While it is important for the agencies to remain flexible, too much flexibility will render the draft VMGs meaningless. The draft VMGs should be less equivocal about the types of mergers that will not receive significant scrutiny and are unlikely to be the subject of enforcement action.
What may be most troubling about the market share safe harbor is the likelihood that it will establish general enforcement norms that did not previously exist. It is likely that agency staff will soon interpret (despite language stating otherwise) the 20% market share as the minimumnecessarycondition to open an in-depth investigation and to pursue an enforcement action. We have seen other guidelines’ tools have similar effects on agency analysis before (see, GUPPIs). This risk is only exacerbated where the safe harbor is not a true safe harbor that provides businesses with clarity on enforcement priorities.
3. Requirements for Proving EDM and Efficiencies Fails to Recognize Vertical Merger Context
The draft VMGs minimize the significant role of EDM and efficiencies in vertical mergers. The agencies frequently take a skeptical approach to efficiencies in the context of horizontal mergers and it is well-known that the hurdle to substantiate efficiencies is difficult, if not impossible, to meet. The draft VMGs oddly continue this skeptical approach by specifically referencing the standards discussed in the horizontal merger guidelines for efficiencies when discussing EDM and vertical merger efficiencies. The draft VMGs do not recognize that the combination of complementary products is inherently more likely to generate efficiencies than in horizontal mergers between competitors. The draft VMGs also oddly discuss EDM and efficiencies in separate sections and spend a trivial amount of time on what is the core motivating feature of vertical mergers. Even the discussion of EDM is as much about where there may be exceptions to EDM as it is about making clear the uncontroversial view that EDM is frequent in vertical transactions. Without acknowledging the inherent nature of EDM and efficiencies more generally, the final VMGs will send the wrong message that vertical merger enforcement should be on par with horizontal merger enforcement.
4. No New Insights into How Agencies Will Assess Vertical Mergers
Some might argue that the costs associated with the draft VMGs nevertheless are tolerable because the guidelines offer significant benefits that far outweigh their costs. But that is not the case here. The draft VMGs provide no new information about how the agencies will review vertical merger transactions and under what circumstances they are likely to seek enforcement actions. And that is because it is a difficult if not impossible task to identify any such general guiding principles. Indeed, unlike in the context of horizontal transactions where an increase in market power informs our thinking about the likely competitive effects, greater market power in the context of a vertical transaction that combines complements creates downward pricing pressure that often will dominate any potential competitive harm.
The draft VMGs do what they can, though, which is to describe in general terms several theories of harm. But the benefits from that exercise are modest and do not outweigh the significant risks discussed above. The theories described are neither novel or unknown to the public today. Nor do the draft VMGs explain any significant new thinking on vertical mergers, likely because there has been none that can provide insight into general enforcement principles. The draft VMGs also do not clarify changes to statutory text (because it has not changed) or otherwise clarify judicial rulings or past enforcement actions. As a result, the draft VMGs do not offer sufficient benefits that would outweigh their substantial cost.
Despite these concerns, it is worth acknowledging the work the FTC and DOJ have put into preparing the draft VMGs. It is no small task to articulate a unified position between the two agencies on an issue such as vertical merger enforcement where so many have such strong views. To the agencies’ credit, the VMGs are restrained in not including novel or more adventurous theories of harm. I anticipate the DOJ and FTC will engage with commentators and take the feedback seriously as they work to improve the final VMGs.
This post is authored by Scott Sher (Partner, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati) and Matthew McDonald (Associate, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati).]
On January 10, 2020, the United States Department of Justice (“DOJ”) and the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) (collectively, “the Agencies”) released their joint draft guidelines outlining their “principal analytical techniques, practices and enforcement policy” with respect to vertical mergers (“Draft Guidelines”). While the Draft Guidelines describe and formalize the Agencies’ existing approaches when investigating vertical mergers, they leave several policy questions unanswered. In particular, the Draft Guidelines do not address how the Agencies might approach the issue of acquisition of potential or nascent competitors through vertical mergers. As many technology mergers are motivated by the desire to enter new industries or add new tools or features to an existing platform (i.e., the Buy-Versus-Build dilemma), the omission leaves a significant hole in the Agencies’ enforcement policy agenda, and leaves the tech industry, in particular, without adequate guidance as to how the Agencies may address these issues.
This is notable, given that the Horizontal Merger Guidelines explicitly address potential competition theories of harm (e.g., at § 1 (referencing mergers and acquisitions “involving actual or potential competitors”); § 2 (“The Agencies consider whether the merging firms have been, or likely will become absent the merger, substantial head-to-head competitors.”). Indeed, the Agencies have recently challenged several proposed horizontal mergers based on nascent competition theories of harm.
Thus, further policy guidance from the Agencies on this issue is needed. As the Agencies formulate guidance, they should take note that vertical mergers involving technology start-ups generally promote efficiency and innovation, and that any potential competitive harm almost always can be addressed with easy-to-implement behavioral remedies.
The agencies’ draft vertical merger guidelines
The Draft Guidelines outline the following principles that the Agencies will apply when analyzing vertical mergers:
Market definition. The Agencies will identify a relevant market and one or more “related products.” (§ 2) This is a product that is supplied by the merged firm, is vertically related to the product in the relevant market, and to which access by the merged firm’s rivals affects competition in the relevant market. (§ 2)
Safe harbor. Unlike horizontal merger cases, the Agencies cannot rely on changes in concentration in the relevant market as a screen for competitive effects. Instead, the Agencies consider measures of the competitive significance of the related product. (§ 3) The Draft Guidelines propose a safe harbor, stating that the Agencies are unlikely to challenge a vertical merger “where the parties to the merger have a share in the relevant market of less than 20 percent, and the related product is used in less than 20 percent of the relevant market.” (§ 3) However, shares exceeding the thresholds, taken alone, do not support an inference that the vertical merger is anticompetitive. (§ 3)
Theories of unilateral harm. Vertical mergers can result in unilateral competitive effects, including raising rivals’ costs (charging rivals in the relevant market a higher price for the related product) or foreclosure (refusing to supply rivals with the related product altogether). (§ 5.a) Another potential unilateral effect is access to competitively sensitive information: The combined firm may, through the acquisition, gain access to sensitive business information about its upstream or downstream rivals that was unavailable to it before the merger (for example, a downstream rival of the merged firm may have been a premerger customer of the upstream merging party). (§ 5.b)
Theories of coordinated harm. Vertical mergers can also increase the likelihood of post-merger coordinated interaction. For example, a vertical merger might eliminate or hobble a maverick firm that would otherwise play an important role in limiting anticompetitive coordination. (§ 7)
Procompetitive effects. Vertical mergers can have procompetitive effects, such as the elimination of double marginalization (“EDM”). A merger of vertically related firms can create an incentive for the combined entity to lower prices on the downstream product, because it will capture the additional margins from increased sales on the upstream product. (§ 6) EDM thus may benefit both the merged firm and buyers of the downstream product. (§ 6)
Efficiencies. Vertical mergers have the potential to create cognizable efficiencies; the Agencies will evaluate such efficiencies using the standards set out in the Horizontal Merger Guidelines. (§ 8)
Implications for vertical mergers involving nascent start-ups
At present, the Draft Guidelines do not address theories of nascent or potential competition. To the extent the Agencies provide further guidance regarding the treatment of vertical mergers involving nascent start-ups, they should take note of the following facts:
First, empirical evidence from strategy literature indicates that technology-related vertical mergers are likely to be efficiency-enhancing. In a survey of the strategy literature on vertical integration, Professor D. Daniel Sokol observed that vertical acquisitions involving technology start-ups are “largely complementary, combining the strengths of the acquiring firm in process innovation with the product innovation of the target firms.” (p. 1372) The literature shows that larger firms tend to be relatively poor at developing new and improved products outside of their core expertise, but are relatively strong at process innovation (developing new and improved methods of production, distribution, support, and the like). (Sokol, p. 1373) Larger firms need acquisitions to help with innovation; acquisition is more efficient than attempting to innovate through internal efforts. (Sokol, p. 1373)
Second, vertical merger policy towards nascent competitor acquisitions has important implications for the rate of start-up formation, and the innovation that results. Entrepreneurship in technology markets is motivated by the opportunity for commercialization and exit. (Sokol, p. 1362 (“[T]he purpose of such investment [in start-ups] is to reap the rewards of scaling a venture to exit.”))
In recent years, as IPO activity has declined, vertical mergers have become the default method of entrepreneurial exit. (Sokol, p. 1376) Increased vertical merger enforcement against start-up acquisitions thus closes off the primary exit strategy for entrepreneurs. As Prof. Sokol concluded in his study of vertical mergers:
When antitrust agencies, judges, and legislators limit the possibility of vertical mergers as an exit strategy for start-up firms, it creates risk for innovation and entrepreneurship…. it threatens entrepreneurial exits, particularly for tech companies whose very business model is premised upon vertical mergers for purposes of a liquidity event. (p. 1377)
Third, to the extent that the vertical acquisition of a start-up raises competitive concerns, a behavioral remedy is usually preferable to a structural one. As explained above, vertical acquisitions typically result in substantial efficiencies, and these efficiencies are likely to overwhelm any potential competitive harm. Further, a structural remedy is likely infeasible in the case of a start-up acquisition. Thus, behavioral relief is the only way of preserving the deal’s efficiencies while remedying the potential competitive harm. (Which the Agencies have recognized, see DOJ Antitrust Division, Policy Guide to Merger Remedies, p. 20 (“Stand-alone conduct relief is only appropriate when a full-stop prohibition of the merger would sacrifice significant efficiencies and a structural remedy would similarly eliminate such efficiencies or is simply infeasible.”)) Appropriate behavioral remedies for vertical acquisitions of start-ups would include firewalls (restricting the flow of competitively sensitive information between the upstream and downstream units of the combined firm) or a fair dealing or non-discrimination remedy (requiring the merging firm to supply an input or grant customer access to competitors in a non-discriminatory way) with clear benchmarks to ensure compliance. (See Policy Guide to Merger Remedies, pp. 22-24)
To be sure, some vertical mergers may cause harm to competition, and there should be enforcement when the facts justify it. But vertical mergers involving technology start-ups generally enhance efficiency and promote innovation. Antitrust’s goals of promoting competition and innovation are thus best served by taking a measured approach towards vertical mergers involving technology start-ups. (Sokol, pp. 1362–63) (“Thus, a general inference that makes vertical acquisitions, particularly in tech, more difficult to approve leads to direct contravention of antitrust’s role in promoting competition and innovation.”)
This post is authored by Sharis Pozen (Partner, Clifford Chance; former Vice President of Global Competition Law and Policy, GE; former Acting Assistant Attorney General, DOJ Antitrust Division); with Timothy Cornell (Partner, Clifford Chance); Brian Concklin (Counsel, Clifford Chance); and Michael Van Arsdall (Counsel, Clifford Chance).]
The draft Vertical Merger Guidelines (“Guidelines”) miss a real opportunity to provide businesses with consistent guidance across jurisdictions and to harmonize the international approach to vertical merger review.
As drafted, the Guidelines indicate the agencies will evaluate market shares and concentration — measured using the same methodology described in the long-standing Horizontal Merger Guidelines — but not use these metrics as a “rigid screen.” On that basis the Guidelines establish a “soft” 20 percent threshold, where the U.S. Agencies are “unlikely to challenge a vertical merger” if the merging parties have less than a 20 percent share of the relevant market and the related product is used in less than 20 percent of the relevant market.
We suggest, instead, that the Guidelines be aligned with those of other jurisdictions, namely the EU non-horizontal merger guidelines [for an extended discussion of which, see Bill Kolaasky’s symposium post here —ed.]. The European Commission’s guidelines state the European Commission is “unlikely to find concern” with a vertical merger affecting less than 30 percent of the relevant markets and the post-merger HHIs fall below 2000. Among others, Japan and Chile employ a similarly higher bar than the Guidelines. A discrepancy between the U.S. and other international guidelines causes unnecessary uncertainty within the business and legal communities and could lead to inconsistent enforcement outcomes.In any event, beyond the dangers created by a lack of international harmonization, setting the threshold at 20 percent seems arbitrarily low given the pro-competitive nature of most vertical mergers. Setting the threshold so low fails to recognize the inherently procompetitive nature of the majority of vertical combinations, and could result in false positives, and undue cost and delay.
This post is authored by Eric Fruits (Chief Economist, International Center for Law & Economics and Professor of Economics, Portland State University).]
Vertical mergers are messy. They’re messy for the merging firms and they’re especially messy for regulators charged with advancing competition without advantaging competitors. Firms rarely undertake a vertical merger with an eye toward monopolizing a market. Nevertheless, competitors and competition authorities excel at conjuring up complex models that reveal potentially harmful consequences stemming from vertical mergers. In their post, Gregory J. Werden and Luke M. Froeb highlight the challenges in evaluating vertical mergers:
[V]ertical mergers produce anticompetitive effects only through indirect mechanisms with many moving parts, which makes the prediction of competitive effects from vertical mergers more complex and less certain.
There’s a recurring theme throughout this symposium: The current Vertical Merger Guidelines should be updated; the draft Guidelines are a good start, but they raise more questions than they answer. Other symposium posts have hit on the key ups and downs of the draft Guidelines.
In this post, I use the draft Guidelines’ examples to highlight how messy vertical mergers can be. The draft Guidelines’ examples are meant to clarify the government’s thinking on markets and mergers. In the end, however, they demonstrate the complexity in identifying relevant markets, related products, and the dynamic interaction of competition. I will focus on two examples provided in the draft Guidelines. Warning: you’re going to read a lot about oranges.
In the following example from the draft Guidelines, the relevant market is the wholesale supply of orange juice in region X and Company B’s supply of oranges is the related product:
Example 2: Company A is a wholesale supplier of orange juice. It seeks to acquire Company B, an owner of orange orchards. The Agencies may consider whether the merger would lessen competition in the wholesale supply of orange juice in region X (the relevant market). The Agencies may identify Company B’s supply of oranges as the related product. Company B’s oranges are used in fifteen percent of the sales in the relevant market for wholesale supply of orange juice. The Agencies may consider the share of fifteen percent as one indicator of the competitive significance of the related product to participants in the relevant market.
The figure below illustrates one hypothetical structure. Company B supplies an equal amount of oranges to Company A and two other wholesalers, C and D, totalling 15 percent of orange juice sales in region X. Orchards owned by others account for the remaining 85 percent. For the sake of argument, assume all the wholesalers are the same size in which case Company B’s orchard would supply 20 percent of the oranges used by wholesalers A, C, and D.
Orange juice sold in a particular region is just one of many uses for oranges. The juice can be sold as fresh liquid, liquid from concentrate, or frozen concentrate. The fruit can be sold as fresh produce or it can be canned, frozen, or processed into marmalade. Many of these products can be sold outside of a particular region and can be sold outside of the United States. This is important in considering the next example from the draft Guidelines.
Example 3: In Example 2, the merged firm may be able to profitably stop supplying oranges (the related product) to rival orange juice suppliers (in the relevant market). The merged firm will lose the margin on the foregone sales of oranges but may benefit from increased sales of orange juice if foreclosed rivals would lose sales, and some of those sales were diverted to the merged firm. If the benefits outweighed the costs, the merged firm would find it profitable to foreclose. If the likely effect of the foreclosure were to substantially lessen competition in the orange juice market, the merger potentially raises significant competitive concerns and may warrant scrutiny.
This is the classic example of raising rivals’ costs. Under the standard formulation, the merged firm will produce oranges at the orchard’s marginal cost — in theory, the price it pays for oranges would be the same both pre- and post-merger. If orchard B does not sell its oranges to the non-integrated wholesalers C, D, and E, the other orchards will be able to charge a price greater than their marginal cost of production and greater than the pre-merger market price for oranges. The higher price of oranges used by non-integrated wholesalers will then be reflected in higher prices for orange juice sold by the wholesalers.
The merged firm’s juice prices will be higher post-merger because its unintegrated rivals’ juice prices will be higher, thus increasing the merged firm’s profits. The merged firm and unintegrated orchards would be the “winners;” unintegrated wholesalers and consumers would be the “losers.” Under a consumer welfare standard the result could be deemed anticompetitive. Under a total welfare standard, anything goes.
But, the classic example of raising rivals’ costs is based on some strong assumptions. It assumes that, pre-merger, all upstream firms price at marginal cost, which means there is no double marginalization. It assumes all the upstream firm’s products are perfectly identical. It assumes unintegrated firms don’t respond by integrating themselves. If one or more of these assumptions is not correct, more complex models — with additional (potentially unprovable) assumptions — must be employed. What begins as a seemingly straightforward theoretical example is now a battle of which expert’s models best fit the facts and best predicts the likely outcome.
In the draft Guidelines’ raising rivals’ costs example, it’s assumed the merged firm would refuse to sell oranges to rival downstream wholesalers. However, if rival orchards charge a sufficiently high price, the merged firm would profit from undercutting its rivals’ orange prices, while still charging a price greater than marginal cost. Thus, it’s not obvious that the merged firm has an incentive to cut off supply to downstream competitors. The extent of the pricing pressure on the merged firm to cheat on itself is an empirical matter that depends on how upstream and downstream firms react, or might react.
For example, using the figure above, if the merged firm stopped supplying oranges to rival wholesalers, then the merged firm’s orchard would supply 60 percent of the oranges used in the firm’s juice. Although wholesalers C and D would not get oranges from B’s orchards, they could obtain oranges from other orchards that are no longer supplying wholesaler A. In this case, the merged firm’s attempt at foreclosure would have no effect and there would be no harm to competition.
It’s possible the merged firm would divert some or all of its oranges to a “secondary” market, removing those oranges from the juice market. Rather than juicing oranges, the merged firm may decide to sell them as fresh produce; fresh citrus fruits account for 7 percent of Florida’s crop and 75% of California’s. This diversion would lead to a decline in the supply of oranges for juice and the price of this key input would rise.
But, as noted in the Guidelines’ example, this strategy would raise the merged firm’s costs along with its rivals. Moreover, rival orchards can respond to this strategy by diverting their own oranges from “secondary” markets to the juice market, in which case there may be no significant effect on the price of juice oranges. What begins as a seemingly straightforward theoretical example is now a complicated empirical matter. Or worse, it may just be a battle over which expert is the most convincing fortune teller.
Moreover, the merged firm may have legitimate business reasons for the merger and legitimate business reasons for reducing the supply of oranges to juice wholesalers. For example “citrus greening,” an incurable bacterial disease, has caused severe damage to Florida’s citrus industry, significantly reducing crop yields. A vertical merger could be one way to reduce supply risks. On the demand side, an increase in the demand for fresh oranges would guide firms to shift from juice and processed markets to the fresh market. What some would see as anticompetitive conduct, others would see as a natural and expected response to price signals.Because of the many alternative uses for oranges, it’s overly simplistic to declare that the supply of orange juice in a specific region is “the” relevant market. Orchards face a myriad of options in selling their products. Misshapen fruit can be juiced fresh or as frozen concentrate; smaller fruit can be canned or jellied. “Perfect” fruit can be sold as fresh produce, juice, canned, or jellied. Vertical integration with a juice wholesaler adds just one factor to the myriad factors affecting how and where an upstream supplier sells its products. Just as there is no single relevant market, in many cases there is no single related product — a fact that is especially relevant in vertical relationships. Unfortunately the draft Guidelines provide little guidance in these important areas.
This post is authored by Steven J. Cernak (Partner, Bona Law; Adjunct Professor, University of Michigan Law School and Western Michigan University Thomas M. Cooley Law School; former antitrust counsel, GM).]
[Cernak: This paper represents the current views of the author alone and not necessarily the views of any past, present, or future employer or client.]
What should we make of Cmr. Chopra’s and Cmr. Slaughter’s dissents?
Some of my confusion dissipated as I had a chance to read and analyze the draft guidelines and the accompanying statements of Commissioners Wilson, Slaughter, and Chopra. First, Commissioners Slaughter and Chopra only abstained from the decision to release the draft for public comment. In their statements, they explained their actions as necessary to register their disagreement with the terms of this particular draft but that they too joined the chorus calling for repudiation of the 1984 Guidelines.
But some of my confusion remained as I went over Commissioner Chopra’s statement again. Instead of objections to particular provisions of the draft guidelines, the statement is more of a litany of complaints on all that is wrong with today’s economy and antitrust policy’s role in it. Those complaints are ones we have heard from Commissioner Chopra before. They certainly should be part of the general policy debate; however, they seem to go well beyond competitive issues that might be raised by vertical mergers and that should be part of a set of guidelines.
As the first sentence and footnote of the draft guidelines make clear, the draft guidelines are meant to “outline the principal analytical techniques, practices and enforcement policy of … the Agencies” and “reflect the ongoing accumulation of experience at the Agencies.” They are written to provide some guidance to potential merging parties and their advisers as to how the Agencies are likely to analyze a merger and, so, provide some greater level of certainty. That does not mean that the guidelines are meant to capture the techniques of the Agencies in amber forever – or even 35 years. As that same first footnote makes clear, the guidelines may be revised to “reflect significant changes in enforcement policy…or to reflect new learning.” But guidelines designed to provide some clarity on how vertical mergers have been and will be reviewed are not the forum for a broad exchange of views on antitrust policy. Those comments are more helpful in FTC hearings, speeches, or enforcement actions that the Commissioners might participate in, not guidelines for practitioners.
Commissioner Slaughter’s statement, on the other hand, stays focused on vertical mergers and the issues that she has with these draft guidelines. She and other early commentators raise at least some questions about the current draft that I hope will be addressed in the final version. For instance, the 1984 version of the guidelines included as potential anticompetitive effects from vertical mergers 1) regulatory evasion and 2) the creation of the need for potential entrants to enter at multiple stages of the market. As Commissioner Slaughter points out, the current draft guidelines drop those two and instead focus on 1) foreclosure; 2) raising rivals’ costs; and 3) the exchange of competitively sensitive information.
Should we take the absence of the two 1984 harms as an indication that those types of harms are no longer important to the Agencies? Or that they have not been important in recent Agency action, and so did not make this draft, but would still be considered if the correct facts were found? Some other option? While the new guidelines would become too long and unwieldy if they recited and rejected all potential theories of harm, I join Commissioner Slaughter in thinking it would be helpful to include an explanation regarding these particular changes from the prior guidance.
Who bears the burden on elimination of double marginalization?
Finally, both Commissioner Wilson’s and Commissioner Slaughter’s statements specifically request public comments regarding certain features of the draft guidelines’ handling of the elimination of double marginalization (“EDM”). While they raise good questions, I want to focus on a more fundamental question raised by the draft guidelines and a recent speech by Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim.
The draft guidelines provide a concise, cogent description of EDM, the usual analysis of it during vertical mergers, and some special factors that might make it less likely to occur. Some commentators have pointed out that EDM gets its own section of the draft guidelines, signaling its importance. I think it even more significant, perhaps, that that separate section is placed in between the sections on unilateral and coordinated competitive effects. Does that placement signal that the analysis of EDM is part of the Agencies’ analysis of the overall predicted competitive effects of the merger? That hypothesis also is supported by this statement at the end of the EDM section: “The Agencies will not challenge a merger if the net effect of elimination of double marginalization means that the merger is unlikely to be anticompetitive in any relevant market.”
Because the Agencies would have the ultimate burden of showing in court that the effect of the proposed merger “may be substantially to lessen competition, or tend to create a monopoly,” it seems to follow that the Agencies would have the burden to factor EDM into the rest of their competitive analysis to show what the potential overall net effect of the merger would be.
Unfortunately, earlier in the EDM section of the draft guidelines, the Agencies state that they “generally rely on the parties to identify and demonstrate whether and how the merger eliminates double marginalization.” (emphasis added) Does that statement merely mean that the parties must cooperate with the Agencies and provide relevant information, as required on all points under Hart-Scott-Rodino? Or is it an attempt to shift to the parties the ultimate burden of proving this part of the competitive analysis? That is, is it a signal that, despite the separate section placed in the middle of the discussion of competitive effects analysis, the Agencies are skeptical of EDM and plan to treat it more like a defense as they treat certain cognizable efficiencies?
That latter position is supported by comments by AAG Delrahim in a recent speech: “as the law requires for the advancement of any affirmative defense, the burden is on the parties in a vertical merger to put forward evidence to support and quantify EDM as a defense.” So is EDM a defense to an otherwise anticompetitive vertical merger or just part of the overall analysis of competitive effects? Before getting to the pertinent but more detailed questions posed by Commissioners Wilson and Slaughter, these draft guidelines would further their goal of providing clarity by answering that more basic EDM question.
Despite those concerns, the draft guidelines seem consistent with the antitrust community’s consensus today on the proper analysis of vertical mergers. As such, they would seem to be consistent with how the Agencies evaluate such mergers today and so provide helpful guidance to parties considering such a merger. I hope the final version considers all the comments and remains helpful – and is released on a Monday so we can all more easily and intelligently start commenting.
This post is authored by Timothy J. Brennan (Professor, Public Policy and Economics, University of Maryland; former Chief Economist, FCC; former economist, DOJ Antitrust Division).]
The DOJ Antitrust Division and the FTC have issued draft proposed Vertical Merger Guidelines (VMGs). These have been long-desired in some quarters, and long-dreaded in others. The controversy remains, although those who long desired them may dread what they got, and vice versa.
I’ve accepted Geoff’s invitation to offer some short thoughts on this blessedly short draft. I’ll focus on what one might call “pure” vertical mergers, as opposed to those based on concerns regarding potential entry or expansion by a vertically integrated firm into its upstream or downstream market. After looking at what the draft classifies as unilateral effects, I’ll then turn briefly to coordinated effects, burden of proof, and the whether we want to go there at all.
A notable omission
It’s useful to think of pure vertical mergers mergers in a reverse direction; that is, not the harms they would create, but the benefits of blocking the merger even if it were harmful. The usual argument against prosecuting such mergers is that one would be left with separate firms charging above-competitive prices at one end or the other — and if they do it at both ends, creating double marginalization.
In that regard, the draft has a notable omission: a skeptical eye toward mergers when a firm with market power is unable to charge a consequently high price. The usual justification is price regulation of a monopoly. Concern about the harm of vertical integration as a means to evade such regulation was the basis for the divestiture by AT&T of its then-regulated, then-monopoly local telephone companies, the mirror image of blocking a vertical merger. This concern also formed the basis of Federal Energy Regulatory Commission orders (here and here) separating control of regulated electricity transmission lines from ownership of unregulated generation.
More controversially, one could apply this in contexts where pricing is limited by something other than explicit regulation. TOTM has recently featured a debate between Geoff Manne and Dirk Auer on one side and Mark Lemley, Doug Melamed, and Steve Salop regarding the FTC’s case against Qualcomm’s licensing practices, where the issue (I think) is about whether FRAND licensing requirements limit Qualcomm’s ability to extract the full rental value of its patents. Perhaps even more out there, I’ve suggested that transaction costs keeping Google from charging directly for search could justify concern with discrimination in favor of its offerings in other markets, without having to reject a consumer welfare standard and where “free” search could justify rather than impede an antitrust case. Whether non-regulatory restrictions on price should justify vertical concerns is, to say the least, complicated. You’ll see that word often, and I’ll come back to it at the end.
Raising rivals’ costs and foreclosure: Why would the merger matter?
The seeming truism of raising rivals’ costs is that to raise someone’s costs, you have to raise the price of an input they use or a complement they need. If a merger (or vertical restraint) extends control over an input or complement, the competitive risk arises because that complement market is being monopolized. Accordingly, enforcers need to ensure they are looking at competition and ease of entry in the market that’s being monopolized, not the market in which the bad guy who benefits might operate. For example, in the case involving Intel’s loyalty rebates to computer makers that allegedly excluded AMD’s processing chips, the relevant market was not chips but computers, and it is necessary to explain why AMD couldn’t get new computer makers to use its chips or vertically integrate itself into computers.
With a “pure” vertical merger, however, the raising rivals’ cost or foreclosure story depends not on the creation or expansion of market power over an input or complement. It must depend on how vertical integration leads to the exercise of power in that market that was not being exercised before. That requires that vertical integration changes the strategic interactions determining price and quality.
If this is the story, however, the agencies should make clear that they bear an obligation to explain how vertical integration matters, rather than assume a competitive outcome otherwise. The recent (failed) Justice Department challenge to AT&T’s vertical acquisition of Time Warner programming bears this out. DOJ’s core claim was that post-merger, Time Warner program services (HBO, CNN) would strike tougher deals with other video distributors, leading to higher licensing fees, because they would know that a failed negotiation would increase subscribership to AT&T. However, once a program service licenses to any video distributor, it realizes that if other video distributors don’t take their service, it will increase subscribers and profits from its initial deal. If that change in bargaining position benefits whoever gets the first deal, distributors presumably can cut a deal to be the first, without vertical merger being necessary.
Might vertical merger still matter? Perhaps, but plaintiffs should have to explain what transaction costs prevent such a nominally anticompetitive deal. Critics of indifference to vertical mergers, and the draft VMGs, point out that double marginalization might be eliminated without vertical integration, through use of contracts that include fixed fees and sales at marginal cost. A similar skepticism regarding the need for vertical integration to achieve anticompetitive ends is similarly appropriate. Establishing that need may be, well, complicated.
Coordination and symmetry
I have less to say about coordinated effects. Knowing when firms decide to switch from competing to cooperating is probably a matter of psychology and sociology as much as economics. However, economics does suggest that collusion is more likely the more symmetric are the positions of the potential colluders, to help find a mutually agreeable tactic and reduce the need for side payments and the like. To the extent symmetry is relevant, a pure vertical merger will facilitate collusion only if other market participants were similarly integrated. And absent market-wide collusion to integrate, this integration of the other participants could be reasonably interpreted as evidence of efficiencies of vertical integration. This would make a coordinated effects vertical merger case, well, complicated.
Contracting alternatives to vertical merger abound, as two-part pricing to eliminate double marginalization and sequential per-subscriber pricing in video markets illustrate. Absent regulation, the transaction costs necessary to create and exercise market power but for vertical integration will be lower than those necessary to create and exercise that power but for horizontal merger. This difference in transaction costs means that horizontal merger is more likely to be necessary for harm than vertical merger. Thus, proving that the latter are harmful should be, well, more complicated.
So, are pure vertical mergers worth the trouble to prosecute?
Vertical mergers might be problematic, but cases are necessarily going to be complicated. This raises the question of whether the benefits of prosecuting such mergers are worth the costs, at least outside the regulated industry context. These costs are not just the cost of litigation but the costs to companies of having to hire antitrust counsel and consultants to try to determine whether their merger is likely to be challenged, how much negotiation with the agencies will be entailed, and what the likelihood of loss in court will be. Some aspects of antitrust enforcement, primarily determining who competes with whom and how much, are inevitably complicated. But it is not clear that we are better off expending the resources to see whether something is bad, rather than accepting the cost of error from adopting imperfect rules — even rules that imply strict enforcement. Pure vertical merger may be an example of something that we might just want to leave be.
So we now have 21st Century Vertical Merger Guidelines, at least in draft. Yay. Do they tell us anything? Yes! Do they tell us much? No. But at least it’s a start.
* * * * *
In November 2018, the FTC held hearings on vertical merger analysis devoted to the questions of whether the agencies should issue new guidelines, and what guidance those guidelines should provide. And, indeed, on January 10, 2020, the DOJ and FTC issued their new Draft Vertical Merger Guidelines (“Draft Guidelines”). That new guidance has finally been issued is a welcome development. The antitrust community has been calling for new vertical merger guidelines for some time. The last vertical merger guidelines were issued in 1984, and there is broad consensus in the antitrust community – despite vigorous debate on correct legal treatment of vertical mergers – that the ’84 Guidelines are outdated and should be withdrawn. Despite disagreement on the best enforcement policy, there is general recognition that the legal rules applicable to vertical mergers need clarification. New guidelines are especially important in light of recent high-visibility merger challenges, including the government’s challenge to the ATT/Time Warner merger, the first vertical merger case litigated since the 1970s. These merger challenges have occurred in an environment in which there is little up-to-date case law to guide courts or agencies and the ’84 Guidelines have been rendered obsolete by subsequent developments in economics.
The discussion here focuses on what the new Draft Guidelines do say, key issues on which they do not weigh in, and where additional guidance would be desirable.
What the Draft Guidelines do say
The Draft Guidelines start with a relevant market requirement – making clear that the agencies will identify at least one relevant market in which a vertical merger may foreclose competition. However, the Draft Guidelines do not require a market definition for the vertically related upstream or downstream market(s) in the merger. Rather, the agencies’ proposed policy is to identify one or more “related products.” The Draft Guidelines define a related product as
a product or service that is supplied by the merged firm, is vertically related to the products and services in the relevant market, and to which access by the merged firm’s rivals affects competition in the relevant market.
The Draft Guidelines’ most significant (and most concrete) proposal is a loose safe harbor based on market share and the percentage of use of the related product in the relevant market of interest. The Draft Guidelines suggest that agencies are not likely to challenge mergers if two conditions are met: (1) the merging company has less than 20% market share in the relevant market, and (2) less than 20% of the relevant market uses the related product identified by the agencies.
This proposed safe harbor is welcome. Generally, in order for a vertical merger to have anticompetitive effects, both the upstream and downstream markets involved need to be concentrated, and the merging firms’ shares of both markets have to be substantial – although the Draft Guidelines do not contain any such requirements. Mergers in which the merging company has less than a 20% market share of the relevant market, and in which less than 20% of the market uses the vertically related product are unlikely to have serious anticompetitive effects.
However, the proposed safe harbor does not provide much certainty. After describing the safe harbor, the Draft Guidelines offer a caveat: meeting the proposed 20% thresholds will not serve as a “rigid screen” for the agencies to separate out mergers that are unlikely to have anticompetitive effects. Accordingly, the guidelines as currently drafted do not guarantee that vertical mergers in which market share and related product use fall below 20% would be immune from agency scrutiny. So, while the proposed safe harbor is a welcome statement of good policy that may guide agency staff and courts in analyzing market share and share of relevant product use, it is not a true safe harbor. This ambiguity limits the safe harbor’s utility for the purpose of counseling clients on market share issues.
The Draft Guidelines also identify a number of specific unilateral anticompetitive effects that, in the agencies’ view, may result from vertical mergers (the Draft Guidelines note that coordinated effects will be evaluated consistent with the Horizontal Merger Guidelines). Most importantly, the guidelines name raising rivals’ costs, foreclosure, and access to competitively sensitive information as potential unilateral effects of vertical mergers. The Draft Guidelines indicate that the agency may consider the following issues: would foreclosure or raising rivals’ costs (1) cause rivals to lose sales; (2) benefit the post-merger firm’s business in the relevant market; (3) be profitable to the firm; and (4) be beyond a de minimis level, such that it could substantially lessen competition? Mergers where all four conditions are met, the Draft Guidelines say, often warrant competitive scrutiny. While the big picture guidance about what agencies find concerning is helpful, the Draft Guidelines are short on details that would make this a useful statement of enforcement policy, or sufficiently reliable to guide practitioners in counseling clients. Most importantly, the Draft guidelines give no indication of what the agencies will consider a de minimis level of foreclosure.
The Draft Guidelines also articulate a concern with access to competitively sensitive information, as in the recentStaples/Essendant enforcement action. There, the FTC permitted the merger after imposing a firewall that blocked Staples from accessing certain information about its rivals held by Essendant. This contrasts with the current DOJ approach of hostility to behavioral remedies.
What the Draft Guidelines don’t say
The Draft Guidelines also decline to weigh in on a number of important issues in the debates over vertical mergers. Two points are particularly noteworthy.
First, the Draft Guidelines decline to allocate the parties’ proof burdens on key issues. The burden-shifting framework established inU.S. v. Baker Hughesis regularly used in horizontal merger cases, and was recently adopted in AT&T/Time-Warner in a vertical context. The framework has three phases: (1) the plaintiff bears the burden of establishing a prima facie case that the merger will substantially lessen competition in the relevant market; (2) the defendant bears the burden of producing evidence to demonstrate that the merger’s procompetitive effects outweigh the alleged anticompetitive effects; and (3) the plaintiff bears the burden of countering the defendant’s rebuttal, and bears the ultimate burden of persuasion. Virtually everyone agrees that this or some similar structure should be used. However, the Draft Guidelines’ silence on the appropriate burden is consistent with the agencies’ historical practice: The 2010 Horizontal Merger Guidelines allocate no burdens and the 1997 Merger Guidelines explicitly decline to assign the burden of proof or production on any issue.
Second, the Draft Guidelines take an unclear approach to elimination of double marginalization (EDM). The appropriate treatment of EDM has been one of the key topics in the debates on the law and economics of vertical mergers, but the Draft Guidelines take no position on the key issues in the conversation about EDM: whether it should be presumed in a vertical merger, and whether it should be presumed to be merger-specific.
EDM may occur if two vertically related firms merge and the new firm captures the margins of both the upstream and downstream firms. After the merger, the downstream firm gets its input at cost, allowing the merged firm to eliminate one party’s markup. This makes price reduction profitable for the merged firm where it would not have been for either firm before the merger.
The Draft Guidelines state that the agencies will not challenge vertical mergers where EDM means that the merger is unlikely to be anticompetitive. OK. Duh. However, they also claim that in some situations, EDM may not occur, or its benefits may be offset by other incentives for the merged firm to raise prices. The Draft Guidelines do not weigh in on whether it should be presumed that vertical mergers will result in EDM, or whether it should be presumed that EDM is merger-specific.
These are the most important questions in the debate over EDM. Some economists take the position that EDM is not guaranteed, and not necessarily merger-specific. Others take the position that EDM is basically inevitable in a vertical merger, and is unlikely to be achieved without a merger. That is: if there is EDM, it should be presumed to be merger-specific. Those who take the former view would put the burden on the merging parties to establish pricing benefits of EDM and its merger-specificity.
Our own view is that this efficiency is pervasive and significant in vertical mergers. The defense should therefore bear only a burden of producing evidence, and the agencies should bear the burden of disproving the significance of EDM where shown to exist. This would depart from the typical standard in a merger case, under which defendants must prove the reality, magnitude, and merger-specific character of the claimed efficiencies (the Draft Guidelines adopt this standard along with the approach of the 2010 Horizontal Merger Guidelines on efficiencies). However, it would more closely reflect the economic reality of most vertical mergers.
While the Draft Guidelines are a welcome step forward in the debates around the law and economics of vertical mergers, they do not guide very much. The fact that the Draft Guidelines highlight certain issues is a useful indicator of what the agencies find important, but not a meaningful statement of enforcement policy.
On a positive note, the Draft Guidelines’ explanations of certain economic concepts important to vertical mergers may serve to illuminate these issues for courts.
However, the agencies’ proposals are not specific enough to create predictability for business or the antitrust bar or provide meaningful guidance for enforcers to develop a consistent enforcement policy. This result is not surprising given the lack of consensus on the law and economics of vertical mergers and the best approach to enforcement. But the antitrust community — and all of its participants — would be better served by a more detailed document that commits to positions on key issues in the relevant debates.